The Right Rev Whakahuihui Vercoe

Maori archbishop of New Zealand
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The Independent Online

Whakahuihui Vercoe, priest: born Torere, New Zealand 4 June 1928; ordained priest 1952; Priest-in-Charge, Wellington Pastorate 1953-54; Pastor, Wairarapa 1954-57; Pastor, Rangitikei 1957-61; Chaplain, Armed Forces, Malaya 1961-63; Chaplain, Anzac Brigade, Vietnam 1968-69; Chaplain, Burnham Military Camp 1965-71; MBE 1970; Principal, Te Waipounamu Girls' School, 1971-76; Vicar, Ohinemutu Pastorate 1976-78; Archdeacon of Tairawhiti and Vicar-General to Bishopric of Aotearoa 1978-81; Bishop of Aotearoa 1981-2006; Primate and Archbishop of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia 2004-06; married 1951 Doris Eivers (three sons); died Lynmore, New Zealand 13 September 2007.

A conservative on social issues, and a radical on Maori rights, Whakahuihui Vercoe was a leading voice in the New Zealand Anglican Church even before he became Archbishop in 2004. The country's first Maori archbishop, he spoke up primarily to champion the rights of his own people, who are socially and economically disadvantaged compared with "pakeha" – white New Zealanders.

He was a staunch supporter of the principles of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, which laid the foundations for modern New Zealand. Under the treaty, Maori tribal chiefs ceded sovereignty to the British Crown in exchange for recognition of their ownership of the land. The treaty still shapes race relations in New Zealand today, and Archbishop Vercoe scandalised some New Zealanders by using a speech in 1990 in front of the Queen to declare that the treaty had not been honoured and Maori people had been marginalised in their own country.

The speech is believed to have played a part in the decision by the Anglican Church in New Zealand to split into three sections in 1992: Pakeha, Maori and Polynesian. Each was to be run according to its own traditions and cultures, and Vercoe – who also had some Cornish blood – headed the Maori section until he was made head of the Church in 2004. His elevation to Archbishop was described by the Church as "an historic leap forward in its bi-cultural journey". However, he was diagnosed with cancer of the brain the following year and stepped down in 2006 because of ill health.

Although a passionate advocate of social justice, Vercoe, known as "Hui" to his friends, was implacably opposed to female bishops and gay people in the priesthood – or anywhere. He told the New Zealand Herald soon after being appointed that homosexuality was "unnatural" and "an abomination".

He refused to attend the ordination of Dr Penny Jamieson as Anglican Bishop of Dunedin in 1991, when she became the country's first female bishop. However, he personally ordained a number of women priests. His opposition to female bishops was prompted partly by Maori traditional beliefs, which relegate women to a background role. He also advocated an end to immigration, saying that New Zealand should sort out its own racial problems before admitting any more people from overseas.

Vercoe was born in 1928 in Torere,in the Opotiki district of the north island of New Zealand, and attended Feilding Agricultural High School, followed by the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, and College House Theological College. He was ordained in 1952, and served as a military chaplain in Malaya from 1961 to 1963 and in South Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. Earlier this year, he lodged a compensation claim on behalf of Maori Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange with the Waitangi Tribunal, set up to hear grievances going back to colonial times. More than half the New Zealand soldiers who served in Vietnam were Maori.

From 1980, Vercoe was head of the Maori arm of the Anglican Church – elected by his own people, who were given the first opportunity to choose their own church leader. Previously, the appointment was made by Anglican bishops. Vercoe supported separate institutions, including schools, for Maori people.

His successor, Archbishop Brown Turei, said that Vercoe did not suffer fools gladly. "He certainly spoke his mind, and if it was to do with Maori, he was in there boots and all," he said. During the last 20 years of his life, Vercoe lived in Rotorua, south of Auckland.

Kathy Marks